10.09.08

A Writer’s Secret Life, Part II

For many, sex is an addiction. And as Susan Cheever found out, giving in to the urge is like falling into an hypnotic trance.

For many, sex is an addiction. And as Susan Cheever found out, giving in to the urge is like falling into an hypnotic trance. An excerpt from her new book, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction.

Adultery is the drunk driving of sex addiction. It is possible that someone who is not an alcoholic might get behind the wheel of a car after having had a few drinks, but it is improbable. Similarly, it is possible that someone who is not a sex addict or someone who does not have addictive propensities when it comes to sex might find themselves repeatedly committing adultery, but it is quite unlikely. By committing adultery we often break more than one promise.

At a Fourth of July party I sit next to another writer in a garden on the terrace of a building on Park Avenue where mutual friends have an apartment. She’s a pretty, slender woman named Amy who I have known for a long time and who has written prize-winning books about politics and the economy. Since I am afraid to ask what she is working on, and I have a limited understanding of the federal banking system, I talk to her about what I am working on—a book about desire and addiction. I described the addictive trance, and as I do, I can see her responding. The food is served buffet style, and we have both helped ourselves to salads and are eating propped against a huge ceramic planter seated on green-and-white-striped cushions.

It felt like laughing gas or dopamine had been pumped into the car. I couldn’t keep myself from leaning over to touch him as we chatted. I imagined us in a motel room bed off the Long Island Expressway so vividly that it almost seemed to have happened.

As we eat, she tells me a story—all the while saying she can’t believe she is telling me—about sleeping with a man who was married to a close friend while the close friend was at tennis camp. She remembers that it was as if she were in a trance. She had dinner with the man and told herself that of course that was okay  just to have dinner with him. He took her to a romantic, expensive restaurant and she told herself that was because they both cared about food. She wore strappy high-heeled shoes because, she told herself, she wanted her friend’s husband to feel that she wasn’t having dinner with only because of her closeness to her friend. She knew that she wouldn’t sleep with him; he was the husband of her friend, after all.

She remembers the experience vividly and she especially remembers the way it seemed to be happening to someone else. As he took her home and went upstairs to her bedroom, she felt that she was in some kind of parallel universe where the normal rules didn’t apply, some kind of dreamworld that only happened to have people in it from the real world. She remembers slipping her feet out of the shoes and then a few images. The next morning she almost thought it hadn’t happened because it was so impossible. For three weeks afterward she couldn’t stop thinking about him, but she kept herself from communicating with him in any way and the obsession passed.

Good marriages are based on a series of sexual promises being kept; adultery threatens marriage in more than one way. “The major causes of marital dissolution worldwide are those that historically caused damage to the reproductive success of one spouse by imposing reproductive costs and interfering with preferred mating strategies,” writes David Buss in The Evolution of Desire. “The most damaging events and changes are infidelity, which can reduce a husband’s confidence in paternity and can deprive a wife of some or all of a husband’s resources; infertility, which renders a couple childless; sexual withdrawal, which deprives a husband of access to a wife’s reproductive value or signals to a wife that he is channeling his resources elsewhere; a man’s failure to provide economic support, which deprives a woman of the reproductively relevant resources inherent in her initial choice of a mate; a man’s acquisition of additional wives, which diverts resources from a particular spouse; and unkindness, which signals abuse, defection, affairs, and an unwillingness or inability to engage in the formation of a cooperative alliance.”

About twenty years ago I decided to write a book about adultery. I thought I knew a lot about it from personal experience. I advertised in the New York Review of Books and New York Magazine for people who were committing adultery. I expected letters from people who felt guilty about their cheating but were sometimes powerless to stop it. I saw us as a potential band of sisters and brothers: sexual infidels who were at once ashamed and proud of their behavior and who would be joined together by their secrets. Instead I got letters from angry men and women whose spouses had cheated on them.

Adultery fascinated and horrified me. Why couldn’t I stop? The addictive trance turned me stupid. Later, I felt a combination of remorse, disbelief, and rationalization. I tried to give myself excuses. My husband did this and that, I told myself. He didn’t take out the trash, he never did the dishes, he was often depressed—whatever it was—so of course I had to cheat on him. He was mean; I needed more love than he could give me; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How could I have done such a thing? It must have been someone else’s fault.

Ultimately, in order to stop sleeping with men I had decided not to sleep with, I actually had to stop talking with them. I had to draw the line so close to myself that I essentially gave up almost any contact with married men. I didn’t have lunch with married men; I didn’t chat with them on the phone, and I didn’t answer their letters. if I had business with a married man, I only saw him during the daylight hours. I also had to stop drinking.

“Forrest and I sip Manhattans in the bar in the Ritz-Carlton,” Sue William Silverman writes of the beginning of an affair she had with a married writer when she was a student. “He wears a tweed jacket with the maroon cashmere scarf draped over his shoulders. The flame of the white candle wavers as he speaks. It is hypnotic. Just like his voice. My mind fades. I seem to fade…”

But it didn’t always take a drink to make adultery irresistible. The last time I came close was about ten years ago. I was writing about a famous architect, and an editor asked me to interview him and go to see a house he had built in East Hampton. He and his wife were good friends of the editor. Warren and I had also been to dinner with the editor; on the day of his trip to East Hampton, Warren was in San Francisco where he often had to go for work or, as I came to suspect, just because he felt more comfortable there. After a few calls the architect said he would pick me up and drive me out to East Hampton from the city so that we could chat on the way.

There is something sexual about the enclosed space of a car. We laughed a lot on the way out, and the house was amazing, a showcase for his sexy, whimsical work. It was all very professional until the moment it wasn’t.

Over pizza before driving back into town, he said something and I responded and it was as if we stepped into another country. Driving back into town, our conversation had a new dimension. It felt like laughing gas or dopamine had been pumped into the car. I couldn’t keep myself from leaning over to touch him as we chatted. I imagined us in a motel room bed off the Long Island Expressway so vividly that it almost seemed to have happened. The car felt warm, my skin tingled.

Desperate for a way to stop this familiar slide, I began talking about my children, my love for Warren, our dog’s health issues, anything I could find that seemed to dissipate the glow that now surrounded us. And it worked. Slowly, the eroticism seemed to ebb. The dopamine subsided. The urgency passed. When he dropped me off at my apartment house, I managed to escape with a kiss. Then he wrote me beautiful, sexy letters. I didn’t answer them.

© Susan Cheever 2008. Reprinted by permission of Inkwell Management.